Metalsmithing—taking raw metals and pounding them into functional tools such as knives, swords, awls, fire-strikers, shovels and many more implements—is one of the oldest arts known to man. It’s a common oversimplification to think of human technological advancement in terms of “Stone Age,” “Iron Age,” “Industrial Age” and the like, because, in reality, humans have been working with metals for more than 10,000 years!
The development of metallurgical technologies (such as smelting and mass production) largely replaced the lithic arts, and the same has occurred with industrial technologies, replacing the old metalsmithing arts. After all, who needs blacksmiths anymore? Well, you’d be right … but you’d also be wrong.
About Nhan-Esteban Khuong
Nhan-Esteban Khuong is a professional martial artist and acupuncturist who got interested in the craft of metalsmithing in 2014 after participating in primitive blacksmithing at a primitive skills gathering. He then went on to apprentice for four years with world-renowned master smith Tai Goo and has been developing his craft ever since.
Khuong works in the greater Los Angeles, California, area, developing his skills and teaching others through workshops and private classes. In recent years, his focus has shifted to facilitating opportunities for bonding and self-cultivation for men through traditionally masculine skills, crafts and activities, including combative arts, bladesmithing, bushcraft, survival skills, archery and others.
He believes that modern technology has opened the floodgates to a near-limitless exchange and access to information through the Internet. But this is also leading to a decline in physical aptitude, a nature connection and the traditional handcraft skills that have formed the foundation of masculine social interaction since the dawn of humankind.
Khuong was fascinated by both the complexity and simplicity of the ancient art of bladesmithing; that is, taking a seemingly useless lump of junk and transforming it into what is considered by many the central tool in any survival kit: a knife. As a bladesmith and primitive skills instructor, he feels a responsibility to keep this knowledge of ancient practices alive, in part because it’s a skill that’s quickly going by the wayside—the result of nearly everything we use today becoming disposable products that are made by someone else (or machines) far away.
For the past seven years, Khuong has trained students to take a piece of metal (often, it’s scrap metal, which is so common in our age) and fashion it into a knife, fire steel, spoon, fork, awl, hook or other useful tools. According to Khuong, this ancient art is complex. However, under his tutelage, his students learn the fundamentals in just a few days.
During one of his workshops, he typically begins by sharing a bit of the history of this art, as well as the importance of practicing handicrafts for physical and mental well-being.
Blacksmithing is essentially the art of working iron into art or tools using a forge, hammer and an anvil.
Khuong teaches a modernized version of “primitive” blacksmithing that utilizes commonly found modern tools and materials to make the experience accessible to more enthusiasts. Perhaps a more descriptive term would be “survival” or “contingency” blacksmithing, which doesn’t require the specialized tools one would typically envision a blacksmith using.
Primitive blacksmithing uses an earthen pit forge and charcoal instead of a modern coal or gas forge. The forge, itself, doesn’t cost anything other than the labor needed to build it. In addition, fuel for the forge is easily found in most hardware stores.
Most people who are interested in exploring blacksmithing find that their first challenge is finding the tools. Although it’s true that professional blacksmiths use very specialized tools, beginners don’t need these.
Anvil. Any sufficiently massive piece of metal can be used as an anvil. For instance, this might be a section of axle shaft, railroad rail or even a solid-steel dumbbell. In fact, Khuong describes how a large sledgehammer head embedded in a stump or block of wood can rival most professional anvils—at a fraction of the cost.
Hammer. For a basic and versatile hammer for most blacksmithing work, Khuong recommends a 2-pound engineer’s hammer or cross pein hammer to start; both can be found in any hardware store.
Tongs. A sturdy pair of long-handled pliers would work well for picking up and holding on to hot metal (tongs are also available at many hardware stores).
According to the Ploughshare Institute for Sustainable Culture website, “Over time, you’ll need many different tongs—one or two for each thickness of metal that you work with. Having tongs that are the right size for your materials makes it much easier to keep a good grip on your metal and improves the quality of your work … After you’ve gained some experience blacksmithing, you’ll be able to make your own tongs.”
Slack Bucket. The slack bucket is possibly the least appreciated tool—but it can be the most important. It’s simply a bucket or large container of water that’s used to cool material, tools and other parts.
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